On This Day: Sugarhill Gang released the first Top 40 rap radio hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Rapper's Delight' (Part 1)

On this day in 1979, The Sugarhill Gang released the first-ever Top 40 rap radio hit.

WTOP caught up with the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture to discuss the legacy of the groundbreaking song “Rapper’s Delight.”

“It made a major impact on not only American popular culture, but global culture,” Steven Lewis, curator of Music and Performing Arts told WTOP. “This is really the demonstration that hip-hop, which before had been music you’d hear at parties in certain neighborhoods, could be translated into records, which in turn meant that it could be marketed and sold.”

The roots of rap actually date back earlier.

“Hip-hop was a grassroots cultural movement that emerged from the youth culture of the South Bronx in the early 1970s,” Lewis said. “The first hip-hop artist would be Kool Herc, who was a DJ based in the South Bronx who performed at the party at 1520 Sedgwick, which was symbolically the birth of hip-hop.”

It’s apocryphal to call “Rapper’s Delight” the first rap song as it was actually part of a trifecta of The Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” in the summer of 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” in the fall of 1979, and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” in the winter of 1979.

“Even if it wasn’t the first hip-hop recording, it was definitely the one that made the biggest impact right away,” said Lewis.

Producing it all was Sylvia Robinson, who was known as “The Mother of Hip-Hop.” “There would not be hip-hop if not for Black women,” he said. “[She] sees the commercial potential [and] assembles a trio of Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee. She brings them into the studio and over the bass line of Chic’s hit ‘Good Times,’ they basically just rap for 15 minutes.”

This sparked a new era of copyright battles.

“The implications are different when it goes from informal music that you hear live and most people pay a couple dollars to get into a party, to now the potential to have a multi-million-dollar, multi-billion-dollar industry, it becomes a question of how to give people the proper credit as sources of these samples?,” Lewis said.

The Sugarhill Gang reached a settlement to give Chic co-songwriting credit and the rest is history. In 2011, “Rapper’s Delight” entered the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. In 2014, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in 2008, it ranked No. 2 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, behind Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

“It’s a great recording, a great performance, really great rapping by all of the featured artists,” said Lewis. “Anybody who loves hip-hop today needs to understand that this music has a history that goes back 50 years. To really understand where their music comes from, they need to go back and check out ‘Rapper’s Delight.'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Rapper's Delight' (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation with the Smithsonian’s Steven Lewis here.

Check out my previous podcast with The Sugarhill Gang in the archives.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up